Swords that Speak and Runes that Fight: The Power of the Giant’s Sword in Beowulf

Of all the weapons devised by Man in the long lapse of the centuries, the sword is the only one which combines effectiveness in defence with force in attack, and since its Bronze Age beginnings has gathered round itself a potent mystique which sets it above any other man-made object.

–Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword1

In the corpus of Beowulf studies dating back almost a century and a half, few scenes have received more critical attention than the mere-battle between the eponymous hero and Grendel’s mother. Although she is not nearly as powerful as her son, Beowulf’s legendary strength and the ancestral sword Hrunting prove useless against the defences of the brimwylf [wolfish woman].2 It is, however, a mysterious ealdsweord eotenisc or old giant’s sword – expertly wrought in gold and engraved with runes – that proves powerful enough to slay the female monster and decapitate Grendel when all other swords have failed (1558). This weapon, known to scholars as the mere-sword, magic sword, or giant’s sword, ultimately serves two purposes in the poem as a physical object: namely (to use the language of battle) attack and defence. The distinction is not dissimilar to Allen J. Frantzen’s work on the intertextual relationship between the terms writan and forwritan – a pun on the Old English words for ‘writing’ and ‘cutting through’ – however, I have chosen to focus on the attack function of the sword.3 For the purpose of this essay, I argue that the agents responsible for the ‘force’ and ‘effectiveness’ of the mere-sword in Beowulf are the runic inscriptions that adorn the hilt and blade of the weapon.4 While Ewart Oakeshott certainly did not intend for the words in the epigraph to describe this fictional and symbolic blade from the Anglo-Saxon epic, the power and ‘potent mystique’ that surround these mysterious engravings serve to transform a physical, iron sword into both a supernaturally powerful weapon and a valued trophy capable of transmitting cultural history through time.

The literary and cultural power of runes lies, in part, in their mysterious origins. By tracing the linguistic and archeological history of runic scripts, epigraphical scholars such as Erik Moltke assert that they were first developed in Denmark in the early centuries of Roman imperialism, most likely in the first to third centuries A.D.5 While their origin remains a matter of some uncertainty amongst scholars, we can be confident that the script was quite prevalent in Norway, Sweden and the Danish isles by the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the mid-fifth century. Noted runologist R. I. Page suggests that the earliest Anglo-Saxon runic inscription occurred in the late fourth century or soon after at Caistor-by-Norwich, and the latest on a Whithorn gravestone in Wigtownshire in the latter part of the tenth century. Although the popularity and purpose(s) of runic script remain in contention, the archeological evidence demonstrating at least six centuries of epigraphical use is persuasive.6 The meaning and intention of the script may not have remained consistent over the time period indicated and across its range, but this point is less significant than the fact that runic inscriptions continued to be produced for centuries after Roman script became standard.

The linguistic evidence for a runic origin is at first inconclusive, as the modern ‘rune’ is likely derived from the Latin runa and its plural, runicus, instead of the Old English or Norse, run; which implies a certain cryptic, secret or mystical interpretation. As Page notes in his introduction to Anglo-Saxon runes, ‘[t]heir appearance in the English language reflects the enthusiasm for the Dark Ages, their history and antiquities, which was such a feature of European scholarship in [the seventeenth] century’.7 It is exactly this conscious sentiment of mystery and antiquary interest which surrounds the runes that make them significant to the ninth-century audience of the Beowulf poem. The Anglo-Saxons certainly recognized the mysterious nature of runes: the word means ‘mystery’ or ‘meditation’ in line 111b of the Old English poem The Wanderer, and it is the phrase generally used in the Gospels for ‘the mysteries of divine power’, for instance.8 Page also proposes the Finnish runo, implying ‘incantation’, for a modern English origin.9 For the purpose of this argument, linguistic origin is less significant than the etymological association that each possibility seems to have with mystery and in some cases, magic or supernatural power.

  1. Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991), 1. []
  2. Klaeber’s Beowulf, ed. by R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), l. 1599. For all further excerpts from Beowulf, line numbers are provided following quotations in the text. Translations are from Chickering’s 2006 edition (Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition, ed. and trans. by Howell D. Chickering Jr. [New York: Anchor Books 2006]), unless otherwise noted. []
  3. Allen J. Frantzen, ‘Writing the Unreadable Beowulf’, in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, ed. by Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2006), 91-130. []
  4. Oakeshott, 1. []
  5. Erik Moltke, ‘Er Runeskriften opstået i Danmark?’, Fra Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark (1951), 47-58. []
  6. R. I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1973), 21, 18. []
  7. Ibid., 2. []
  8. Mary S. Serjeantson, ‘The Vocabulary of Folklore in Old and Middle English’, Folklore, 47.1 (1936), 42-73 (61). []
  9. R. I. Page, Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995), 106. []

Comments are closed.